3D Systems and Alibre Software: From Partnership to Acquisition

You might remember that, in May, rapid prototyping printer maker 3D Systems and CAD software maker Alibre struck up a partnership to bring you a RP-CAD bundle for as little as $1,500. It appears the partnership was just prelude to an acquisition.

Abe Reichental, president and CEO of 3D Systems, revealed, “There was already a deal in progress at the time we announced the marketing partnership in May. It was coincidental, in that our 3D printer channel manager approached Alibre to discuss and suggest a partnership, not knowing the two companies were already engaged in advanced acquisition discussion. So we just allowed [the marketing partnership] to happen organically.”

This month, 3D Systems bought Alibre Software, bringing an affordable CAD package into its portfolio. In the announcement, Reichental explained, “With Alibre in our portfolio we are personalizing and integrating design and manufacturing productivity. The combined affordability and user friendliness of our expanded 3D content-to-print solutions offer a clear and compelling choice for engineers, designers and makers to create and make instantly, at work and home.”

Beside traditional engineers and designers, Alibre also caters to hobbyists, tinkerers, homegrown inventors, and craft-fair traders with its Aliber Personal Edition ($199). One of the hurdles new users must overcome is Alibre’s parametric modeling tradition, well-known among long-time CAD users but not always easy to grasp for beginners.

Reichental said, “Classic parametric technology requires too much of a learning curve … it excludes less expert users … We believe there is room, there is space — particularly for the do-it-yourself users and garage entrepreneurs — to create a simple, intuitive CAD package for those audiences. And also for youngsters, kids in elementary, middle school, and high school ages to partake in this exciting 3D revolution.”

Direct modelers like SpaceClaim have had great success by allowing users to use Google SketchUp-style push-pull modeling methods to create 3D geometry, bypassing the need to learn parametric principles altogether. Other parametric software makers — Siemens PLM Software, PTC, and Autodesk, to name but a few — are revamping their own flagship CAD packages to include more direct-editing features.

Reichental wasn’t specific about how he plans to simplify Alibre software, but one possible approach may be to follow in the footsteps of rival packages like Siemens’ Solid Edge with Synchronous Technology, PTC Creo/Direct, and Autodesk Fusion to include more direct-editing tools. (Alibre offers push-pull modeling in its higher end professional package, but not in its low-cost Personal Edition.)

For Alibre software users, little change is expected, as Reichental plans to use Alibre’s own distribution channel and support network to keep the well-oiled sales machine going for the most part. “We’re very impressed with the quality of [Alibre's] reseller channel … we’re excited about their own online, outbound sales capability,” he said.

3D Systems’ grand plan is to “evolve Alibre from a company into a brand,” revealed Reichental, adding, “In our mind, we’re not in this to be CAD vendors. We’re here to offer design productivity tools. That will include some of the SYCODE plug-ins.”

India-headquartered SYCODE, which develops and markets plug-ins for major CAD packages, was founded by Deelip Menezes, who also maintains a blog about the CAD industry. In April, 3D Systems acquired Menezes’ company and gave him directives to establish 3D Systems India.

“We’re particularly excited about the opportunity to expand the field of use in bona fide education and consumer applications at entry level, and in full-fledged manufacturing applications on the high end,” said Reichental.

Part of the challenge in preparing 3D models for 3D printing is the need to strip out certain features or to adjust the geometry to make the mode fit for print (for example, increasing the thickness of wafer-thin walls so they can be printed without the risk of collapse). Bundling a consumer-level 3D printer with an easy, intuitive 3D editing software will go a long way in making 3D printing more accessible, especially in emerging markets where buyers usually don’t own or routinely use CAD software.

For more, listen to the complete audio interview with Abe Reichental.

Alibre + 3D Systems: CAD + Rapid Prototyping for As Little As $1,500

Alibre Software, the company that once grabbed headlines by dropping the price of its parametric CAD program to $199, makes another move today. In partnership with 3D Systems, it plans to offer a CAD-3D printing bundle for as little as $1,500, quite possibly the most affordable option in the market.

The bundles are available as follow:

  • $1,500 — Alibre Design Personal Edition + 3D Systems’ Rapman Kit, a build-your-own 3D printing kit
  • $4,999 — Alibre Design Professional Edition + 3D Systems’ BFB-3000 3D Printer, a pre-assembled desktop model with multicolor printing

Special Alibre software editions sold as part of this bundle include some import/export functions you may not get by purchasing the software on its own. The software in the bundle lets you read and write STEP, IGES, DXF, and DWG. They also give you STL export option so you can literally print your CAD designs as 3D parts in the Rapman Kit or the BFB-3000.

Also included in the bundle is MoI (Moment of Inspiration), a surface modeler you normally won’t get with Alibre Design Personal Edition or Alibre Design Professional Edition. (MoI is part of Alibre Design Expert, priced $1,999; it requires a separate download.)

Branching out from traditional CAD market, Alibre began targeting enthusiasts, hobbyists, model makers, and the do-it-yourself crowd (“DIYers,” as the company calls them) with its Personal Edition. (It continues to cater to professional engineers and designers with its Professional and Expert Editions.) The company’s partnership with 3D Systems, a well-known brand in rapid prototyping, gives Alibre software users the ability to create tangible products from their 3D digital designs.

3D Systems sells its Rapman kits and the BFB-3000 model through its Bits from Bytes website. The kit needs to be assembled before you can start printing, so those who want to bypass the self-assembly work may opt for the BFB-3000 instead. V-Flash, 3D Systems’ entry-level model for the professional market, sells for $9,900. Competitors like Objet and Dimension also market entry-level desktop models (Objet24, Objet30, and Dimension uPrint) for roughly $14,000 to $19,000.

Next week, J. Paul Grayson, chairman and CEO of Alibre, Inc., plans to demonstrate the bundle in operation at Bay Area Maker Faire (May 21-22), the annual gathering for the do-it-yourself crowd. Grayson said, “Four years ago, 3D printing solutions cost nearly $25,000 without the 3D CAD software. Alibre and 3D Systems will allow creators, DIYers and Makers the ability to bring their visions to reality without having to outsource the printing. Makers will be able to effectively run 3D printing factories in their own homes, offices or schools for under $1,500, which has been unheard of until now.”

For more, listen to my recorded interview with J. Paul Grayson, Alibre CEO.

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Alibre Design Expert 2011 with Sheet Metal Conversion

At $99, Alibre Design Personal Edition is quite possibly the most affordable parametric CAD package. While the software still retains a following among mechanical CAD users, it is also seeking — and finding — new markets, especially in the do-it-yourself hobbyist population. The transition from mid-range CAD to beginner CAD was no picnic. When it first announced its new pricing in August 2009, it met with criticism and skepticism. Some concluded the low price was a last-ditch effort, a desperate move by a company on the way out. But time has shown that Alibre is capable of straddling two worlds: the professional’s shop floor as well as the tinkerer’s garage. For the former, it offers Business Class bundles, Alibre Design Expert and Pro ($1,399 and $699, respectively); for the latter, it offers Alibre Design Personal Edition ($99). For this blog entry, I tested out Alibre Design Expert 2011; therefore, if you select a different package, some of the features mentioned may not be available.

The software comes with a rich set of 2D drafting, 3D sketching, and drawing creation tools. Though the software uses history-based modeling methods, it also includes a small set of tools that imitate direct-editing operations (Feature > Direct Edit). This function lets you push and pull on faces or pockets and bosses to adjust geometry constructed parametrically. In other words, the software is still history-based; but it gives you the option to edit your geometry as if you were using a direct-editing program. (A similar approach in SolidWorks is known as Instant 3D.)

In 2011 release, Alibre Design Expert introduces the Scale or Mirror Part command, which lets you scale a part up or down (for example, scaling it up 1.5 times its original dimensions) or create a mirrored copy of a part along a chosen plane (XY, YZ, or ZX plane). Scale is a useful command to use if you suddenly discovered you had underestimated  the size of the part needed to fit in a socket, for example. Mirror will let you easily create left-handed components that are identical to the right-handed ones (or vice versa). However, if you need to edit the scaled or mirrored part, you’ll need to fix the original sketch or part, because the dimensions of the newly created part are dependent of the original one. (For example, if you scale a part with a 1-inch extrusion 1.5 times, the displayed dimension on the newly created part doesn’t automatically get updated to 1.5 inch.)

Perhaps the biggest addition to 2011 release is the Convert to Sheet Metal tool. The feature is intended to be used with imported sheet metal parts (for instance, a sheet metal design originally made in SolidWorks or saved as STEP) without any feature history. It’s not intended to convert a part originally designed as a solid part into a sheet metal part. (It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but if you do, depending on the complexity of your part, the conversion results may be unpredictable.)

Using the command (Features > Convert to Sheet Metal), you can select a surface as the initial tab, then let the software automatically detect associated bends and holes. Once you confirm the list of features generated by Alibre, your imported part becomes a native Alibre sheet metal part, with a list of features that can be edited.

The launch palette of Alibre 2011 gives you instant access to an Alibre user community, called AlibrePowered. Here, you may connect with other Alibre users, share rendered images of your design, and provide/collect feedback from the community.

At $1,399, Alibre Design Expert costs a fraction of Autodesk Inventor ($5,295) or SolidWorks ($4,495). The collection of tools and features in Alibre Design Expert is comparable to its more expensive counterparts, but certain elements — such as rendering and surfacing — are not as tightly integrated with Alibre’s parametric modeling environment as they are in, say, Inventor or SolidWorks.

Alibre Design Expert buyers get Moment of Inspiration (MoI), a NURBS surfacing program, and Luxion KeyShot, an easy-to-use rendering package. But they operate as separate programs in a suite, offered through Alibre’s partnership with makers of MoI and KeyShot.

If you’re a hobbyist, a beginner, or a self-starter in search of a full-featured CAD program, Alibre gives you the best value, but don’t expect to become proficient in it swiftly. It wouldn’t be as easy to master it as, say, Google SketchUp or SpaceClaim. By its very nature, parametric modeling takes some time to learn.

For more, watch the video clip below:

Thinker, Tailor, Soldier, Maker: Snapshots from Maker Faire Bay Area

On Saturday May 22, as midday approached at Maker Faire Bay Area, I was frantically trying to reach Paul Grayson, CEO of Alibre. It was 30 minutes past our appointment. He was somewhere in that swelling tide of people (estimated 90,000), rolling through 48 acres of fairground. His PR firm has provided me with his cell phone number and his booth number, but neither was of much help. When I got a hold of him on the phone, his voice was drowned out by the sound of whirling gadgets and buzzing electronics. The map that came with the show guide didn’t include booth numbers. I was about to give up when I stumbled on him in the press room, giving an interview to a reporter.

Maker Faire, an annual event organized by the editors of Make magazine (“Makezine” for those in the know), attracts the do-it-yourself types with a knack for arts, crafts, and science. Know how to put together an autonomous robot that tosses balls? Want to learn how to turn your old cigar box into a mandolin? Have a solely-for-pleasure engineering project you want to showcase? This is where you might come to teach, learn, or share.

The maker-tinkerer phenomenon, one of the cornerstones of American entrepreneurship, is as old as the country itself. It gave us Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, among others. What’s new is the fast-growing maker communities, fueled by the rise of social media and the plunging cost of technology.

For engineering software developers like Grayson, this is a new field of opportunity, with plenty or unclaimed pastures and prairies. With a 3D modeling package selling for $99 (less than the price of an iPod Nano), Grayson believes his product has an advantage over Autodesk, SolidWorks, and other big names among this exploratory, hobbyist crowd. That’s why the six-foot-tall Texan (one of the few donning a dark suit at the fair) is marching down the aisles, rubbing shoulders with DJs who transformed their music into psychedelic colors, a Burning Man crowd that reprised their pyrotechnic centipede, and a composer who automated a traditional Indonesian orchestra (the contraption is dubbed The Gamelatron).

Personal CAD
Two days before he flew down to California for the fair, Grayson had his PR people issue an announcement. “Alibre announces Alibre Personal Edition, for entrepreneurs and inventors at Maker Faire.” It’s meant as “an industrial-strength, parametric solid modeling system with integrated 3D solid modeling, part and assembly design, associative 2D drafting, and STL export, all at a hobby-friendly price.”

“We want to make it possible for ordinary humans to make things,” proclaimed Grayson. “And that’s really what Maker Faire is all about. Of course, we’re focused on a particular type of things — mechanical products that’s precise, need to be manufactured.”

People who routinely use CAD programs are no stranger to Alibre. Last year, Grayson stirred the engineering software community by slashing its software’s price from $999 to $99. The Personal Edition is what Alibre has been selling for $99 first, later for $97, then back again for $99.

So why negotiate the $3 difference? Grayson admitted, “I’m kind of a crazy marketing guy at heart. I try things. Sometimes my own staff get mad at me because I keep changing it. But it’s part of my nature to want to try new things, experiment, and see how people would react to it.”

In the past, average people couldn’t afford to cut, finish, and assemble their own custom robots, because manufacturing facilities weren’t (they still aren’t) designed to cater to tinkerers looking for a low-volume production run. But today, with an affordable 3D modeling package, you could export your design as an STL file and print it (yes, print it in 3D) at a service bureau. The same workflow has spawned a viable industry revolving around printing customized avatars (from such online games as World of Warcraft or Second Life).

Personal Workshop
Perhaps you have heard of Zipcar, the company that lets subscribers pick up and use vehicles from a pool of cars for a low daily rate (for San Francisco, the advertised rate is $73 for weekdays, $88 for weekends, or $7 per hour). Gas and insurance are included in the plan. It’s ideal for those who must drive occasionally, but don’t have to (or don’t want to) own a car.

TechShop is the workshop equivalent of Zipcar. Would you ever need to own a laser cutter, a metal welder, or a milling machine? For most, the answer is, “Probably not.” But sometimes, when inspiration strikes, you might want to churn out a pair of laser-engraved earrings or a welded sculpture. For roughly $125 a month, TechShop allows its members to use its 15,200 sq. ft. facility, equipped with grinders, vinyl cutters, sewing machines, chop saws, band saws, 3D printers, and computer workstations. (Fresh brew coffee, pop corn, and WiFi also come with access to the place.)

Something else you get at TechShop: CAD training (for additional fee, not part of membership). On July 6, for example, you can begin a 9-hour SolidWorks course (3 hours a week), to learn not just how to model but also to export your design to be produced in 3D printers, laser cutters, and mills onsite. If you have more time to spare, you can also take classes on mold making, fabrication, soldering, and basic electronics, all under the same roof where you might later put those skills to use.

Currently, TechShop has two locations: Menlo Park, California; Durham, North Carolina. But more shops are set to appear in San Francisco, San Jose, Portland, and beyond.

Tinkerers Wanted
“None of this stuff was available to the amateurs 10 years ago,” said TechShop’s founder Jim Newton, waving at the hardware he’d brought along to Maker Faire. “Our members like instant gratification. They want to get something done. It may not be a long-term thing they want to do. So a software like [Autodesk] Inventor is particularly good for that.” With this crowd, a complicated software that takes months to learn just won’t cut it.

“Something interesting tends to happen with TechShop members,” noted Newton. “Somebody would have an idea for a product. They’d make 50-100 units. Then they can put it on eBay and sell it. We’ve had lots of people who spin off a business that way.”

The maker movement is a surging force, driven by personal creativity and the desire to produce something tangible. The outcomes range from mildly amusing, wildly impractical, to possibly market-ready. This is also unfamiliar territory for professional software makers. Whereas CATIA, NX, and Pro/E may carry more weight over smaller brands in automotive and aerospace, should they choose to compete for attention at Maker Faire, they’ll probably need to compete on equal terms with Alibre and the rest.

Alibre Design Professional V12

After grabbing headlines with its $99 offer, Alibre Inc. released a new version of its flagship MCAD package. Available in Standard, Professional, or Expert editions, Alibre V12 offers a series of new functions, including the ability to mark features by different colors and generate sheet metal files from 2D line drawings. For more watch the video below: